Holistic review, also known as whole-file or comprehensive review, refers to admissions processes that consider a broad range of characteristics, including noncognitive and personal attributes, when reviewing applications. Many graduate schools and programs advertise on their websites that they practice a holistic approach to graduate admissions, and consider it a key strategy for achieving diverse cohorts of students with varied experience, backgrounds, and expertise.

But just how widespread are holistic admissions practices, and when in the graduate admissions process do they occur? What are the benefits and drawbacks of holistic admissions at the master’s and doctoral levels, and which criteria are the most important to consider?

In 2015, with support from Hobsons, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) embarked on a year-long study to answer these and other questions related to the current state of graduate admissions. The study consisted of a survey of over 500 universities on their current practices and emerging needs in graduate admissions; a two-day intensive workshop of researchers, graduate deans, admissions professionals and other experts; and a review of the scholarly literature.

Project findings were released in a new report titled Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions, which includes an overview of existing resources and recommendations for graduate institutions seeking to learn more about holistic admissions processes. 

Selected Findings:

  • Compared with other higher education contexts, graduate admissions have a decentralized admissions process. This feature of graduate admissions is likely to pose special challenges for implementing holistic review processes, since procedures may be loosely tied to institutional mission, diversity objectives, or an overarching admissions strategy.
  • Graduate institutions are calling for more data that demonstrate the link between admissions criteria and student success. A growing body of research has established this link in contexts outside graduate education. In the project survey, 81% of graduate school staff respondents reported that these data are needed in the context of their own institutions.
  • It is more important than ever for graduate schools to articulate their diversity objectives and tie them to the missions of their institutions. Doing so will make it easier for graduate schools to build a compelling case on campus for the need to review fairness and reliability of admissions practices.
  • Holistic review is widely viewed as a useful strategy for improving diversity in higher education. There is also some evidence that holistic admissions processes are associated with improved student outcomes. However, much of this evidence comes from outside graduate education contexts, and more work must be done to establish this connection in graduate institutions.
  • The different criteria are important at different stages of the graduate admissions process. Most graduate programs value quantifiable metrics (such as GPA and standardized test scores) in early stages of the admissions process, and then shift to considering more qualitative materials (such as letters of recommendation and personal or research statements) in later stages.
  • The graduate education community would benefit from a clearer understanding of what constitutes a truly “holistic” graduate admissions process for master’s and doctoral programs. The CGS survey uncovered that different types of admissions practices and goals are associated with the term “holistic review.” A core set of practices essential to a holistic approach would give graduate institutions useful, practical guidance.
  • Limited staff and faculty time is considered the greatest barrier to performing more holistic admissions processes for graduate programs. 58% of all survey respondents, which included graduate school staff, admissions professionals, faculty and others, reported time as a barrier.

For more information, view the press release. And, for complete findings, download the report here.


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